Your neighbourhood is a complex and messy place.
If you take a walk around you will see signs of life, hope, movement, change and beauty. There are people working for good in your community like the local neighbourhood centre, community groups, artists and entrepreneurs. But you will also notice elements of despair and decay there like crime, loneliness, violence and things that lead to dehumanisation.
What is your neighbourhood like and how would you describe it? What kind of relationship do you have with your neighbourhood? Are neighbourhoods simply places we move in and out of like pilgrims and consumers or can we develop a deeper connection that will help lead to the flourishing of the place where we live- our community?
Here are some reasons why we think that neighbourhoods matter.
The Church can only exist if it orients outside of itself
The Church must not think of itself in isolation but must understand that it exists in a local context to function as one part of the ecology of the neighbourhood or community where it is placed. Once the Church begins to think primarily about itself in isolation making its mission, programs and structures for the survival and self-glory of the church, it loses its primary call to be a light in this world and an expression of the mission of God for the redemption of the world. Neighbourhoods are places where we can live out this mission of God to materialise beauty, justice, mercy and truth. In fact, radical things happen when we make a shift from asking “God what are you up to in my church?” to “God what are you up to in my neighbourhood?”
God’s Spirit is active outside the church
Often we can be suspicious of the Spirit’s work outside the church in God’s creation. We can be more comfortable in discerning the presence and guidance of God’s Spirit in the church but we become paralysed thinking about how to discern the Spirit in our neighbourhoods. Writer Kathleen Norris says “The Christian religion asks us to put our trust not in ideas, and certainly not theologies, but in a God who was vulnerable enough to become human and die, and who desires to be present to us in our ordinary circumstances.” The neighbourhood is a place where we live out the “ordinary”. Too often we get caught up in big ideas and causes and fail to notice that God is usually at work in the daily joys and frustrations of life that we experience as a community in the close proximity of the places where we live. God’s Spirit moves in the Church, the Spirit also moves, creates and recreates outside the Church.
Neighbourhoods are opportunities to flesh out the values that we talk about
We are living in an age where more than even our words can be separated from our actions. For instance, we can create a curated online presence on social media that reflects only a very little who are are at all. Our words are easy to put out there in a public forum but actually following through with embodied presence, love and action is what matters. If we think about this from a Christian perspective we know that the gospel is not primarily a creed or theological system full of words, but it must be embodied in a local community and function as a witness to the love and mercy of God. The neighbourhood is a place where we can daily be held accountable to fleshing out the gospel; the values of justice truth and beauty. We can’t simply talk about the values that lead to a flourishing community, we must live them out and this is far harder to do.
The neighbourhood is an opportunity to practice hospitality and humanity in a world that can dehumanise us.
In a world that is increasingly fragmented and where people suffer from isolation and loneliness, connecting in the neighbourhood has a healing effect.
Tim Dickau in Plunging into the Kingdom Way: Practicing the Shared Strokes of Community, Hospitality, Justice, and Confession says
“Living, working, shopping, using services, engaging in recreation, hanging out and participating in a common neighborhood all bring a new level of integration into our fragmented lives. Interconnections emerge which give people a greater sense of being known and rooted, reweaving isolated, fragmented lives into a healthier whole. These interconnections – unplanned, serendipitous and transforming – lead to stability and fraternity.”
Knowing and connecting in a place intricately creates a depth in the web of relationships we are a part of in the neighbourhood. The richness and intimacy that comes, with choosing to connect in the neighbourhood is something that can bring such a deep satisfaction. It’s a kind of grounded, earthy and humane “spiritual discipline” that helps us to flourish and become better people.
Places matter to God
From the moment that God named the first garden, place has been important. God created the world, planted a garden but it was not just any garden, he named it Eden. In scripture we see over and over that particular places are important. Physical space matters to God. When we name places they become significant to us, they become unique. They become places where we live, work, play, tend gardens, build things, eat, engage in new friendships, debate issues and share life together. All these things happen in physical spaces that become places we remember and have fond memories of. We tell stories about those places. This is what it means to be human. To be placed.
What matters is that we commit to practicing the values of justice, mercy, hope and love in our daily lives in local ways. That’s what changes our world and nothing can stop that force for good when it happens. Everyday we see ordinary people working for good in unseen ways bringing change little by little in their neighbourhoods.
I find that deeply encouraging.
The neighbourhood matters. Can you think of reasons why your neighbourhood matters to you?
(Drawing by Richard Briggs)